Will Rogers once said about the Pine Cone State, "Did you ever see a place that looked like it was built to enjoy? Well, this whole state of Maine looks that way."
If that's the case with the great state of Maine, it's even more so with Mount Desert Island, where there are 24 mountain peaks and a fiord on an island the size of Martha's Vineyard.
Whether you want to hike, bike, kayak, sail, climb, or cruise, there's a trail, guide, carriage drive, or tour to help you make the most of it.
My five top hikes in Acadia National Park are all moderate or challenging because I love the exercise, but other favorites are easy. Other trails are great for hiking with kids, presenting sights sure to capture their imagination. Many of the best hiking trails in Acadia National Park are gifts of historic pathmakers.
Regardless, always start with a map. I don't go anywhere without my map from Map Adventures. It will help you navigate the roads around Somes Sound and the Park Loop Road around Acadia National Park, in addition to providing detailed views of the hiking trails and carriage roads, including the signpost markers. With Acadia's 125 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of carriage roads, don't leave home without it.
Below are some additional resources I hope you find useful. Most programs have been created not only to take you there, but also to provide the background and safety - along with doses of entertainment -- to maximize your enjoyment.
In addition, check out the ranger-led programs offered by the National Park Service. From mid-May to mid-October affable and informative park rangers share their knowledge of Acadia National Park in a variety of "formats" -- a walk, campfire program, hike, or boat cruise - and in many locations throughout Acadia.
Over the years my favorites have included Stars over Sand Beach, Birds of Prey, the Hawk Watch, the Seawall Late Show, and the photography workshop Focus on Acadia. Let me know your favorites!
And some of the best are totally free.
Family Nature Camp
College of the Atlantic, 105 Eden St., Bar Harbor, 800-597-9500
Some families define their vacations in terms of where they stay. Others in what they do. If you’re a do-er, then you may want to consider this unique opportunity offered by the College of the Atlantic to join them on a week-long learning adventure. Go on a whale watch. Get a close look at beaver lodges. Learn to read animal tracks. Touch a sea star. Discover more about bats that eat fish and make tents. All of this fun occurs on the college’s 35 oceanfront acres and in adjoining Acadia National Park. The program is recommended for families with children who are at least 5-years-old. Families stay together in campus dorms and enjoy delicious, convenient meals in the college cafeteria. Plus, you can walk or take the free bus service to the charming village of Bar Harbor for shopping, ice cream, concerts, and art galleries. Visit COA’s Family Nature Camp to find out why so many families return each year!
Wild Iris Horse Farm
55 West Street, Bar Harbor, 207-288-5234
Wild Iris Farm is a family owned and operated horse farm located in Bar Harbor, Maine. The farm's Shire Draft horses pull their beautiful carriages. During the summer Wild Iris Farm's horse-drawn carriage tours are based at 55 West Street (the Whale Watch Building), Bar Harbor. A luxurious vis-a-vis carriage, drawn by a pair of stately Shire horses, accompanies up to six people. Public tours are 30 minutes in duration and tour downtown Bar Harbor. During the tour, our coachman describes important landmarks and historical sites. Private 30 minute or one hour carriage tours are available for up to four people. Dogs are welcome on private tours. Reservations are recommended. Carriages are available for weddings, special occasions, and corporate events. Wild Iris Farm operates a full-service boarding facility at the farm location, just 1.5 miles from the Hull's Cove entrance to Acadia National Park.
Acadia Mountain Guides
198 Main Street, Bar Harbor 888-232-9559 or 207-866-7562
Acadia Mountain Guides is the only climbing school in Maine accredited by the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association). Their safety, teaching skills, and philosophy were evident in the four-hour private lesson we had with Mark, climbing the 60-foot Otter Cliff over the thundering surf. Hanging from the vertical granite wall, I took a moment to relax and take in the New England sunset before attempting to find the footholds, most seemingly less than an inch that would help me back to the top. Luisa leveraged her experience from the indoor climbing walls in NYC to make three successful climbs between rests at the top listening to Mark, a high school science teacher, talk about the environment and the nearby rock formations. These guides are so exceptional that they are generally fully booked so make arrangements in advance.
1 West St., Bar Harbor 207-288-0007
Having already enjoyed two great sea kayaking trips in Western Bay with Maine State (see below), I was curious to explore Frenchman Bay and a route my AMC guide called “an exciting paddle around the beautiful and wild Porcupine Islands.” The nice people at Maine State referred us to Aquaterra Adventures, which offers two-, three-, and four-and-a-half-hour trips. Although I started out enthusiastically, as I paddled past Bar Island off Bar Harbor, I allowed the tour boats, crowds, and winds carrying the aroma of fried clams to bother me. Why had I come to Bar Harbor? At just about the moment I was collapsing into regret, our professional and very informative guide Jeff changed our route toward Sheep Porcupine so that we could get within 100 feet of a magnificent juvenile bald eagle. Jeff also used the Porcupine Islands to point out a glacial landscape feature common to Acadia’s mountains – a gently sloping northern end and steep cliffs on the south side. Because the waters were calm, Jeff brought us very close to the 100-foot cliffs on the southern end of Bald Porcupine, a dramatic sight. It turned out to be a very nice experience. Although I’d still strongly recommend Acadia’s “quiet side” for kayaking, Aquaterra Adventures is an excellent guide service if you want a change in Frenchman Bay.
Carriages of Acadia
Wildwood Stables, Park Loop Road and Stanley Brook Road, 877-276-3622
Acadia National Park’s 57 miles of carriage roads are feats of engineering, as they weave around mountains and meadows and ascend alongside brooks. Constructed between 1913 and 1940, they provide unique close-up views of Mount Desert Island and lead to some of its most remarkable vistas. You should see the carriage roads as Mr. Rockefeller intended – in a horse-drawn carriage. Carriages of Acadia offers one- and two-hour tours focusing on Day Mountain, Mr. Rockefeller’s Bridges, or Jordan Pond House. All feature informative and amusing narratives by the driver. If you like, choose a tour that allows you to dismount to enjoy the view or to stop for tea and popovers. Prices for children are $7 and $10, depending on age, and range from $18 to $24.50 for adults. Carriages of Acadia also offers private carriage charters that let you chart your own intimate, unhurried drive.
Diver Edís Dive-In Theatre
Pier at College of the Atlantic, 105 Eden Street, Bar Harbor, 800-979-3370
Families give rave reviews to Diver Ed’s Dive-In Theater, a two-hour scenic boat ride into Frenchman Bay in Acadia National Park. Departing from Bar Harbor, the cruise aboard the Starfish Enterprise features Diver Ed and his sidekick Mini Ed, who dive down to the ocean floor, while you watch via real-time video and sound from the deck. Diver Ed then resurfaces with a bag of sea critters, which he deposits in touch tanks for an “up close and personal” experience. My 18-year-old daughter and her friends enjoyed the boat ride and Diver Ed’s educational schtick, as much as the little kids thrilled to find themselves kissing a slimy sea cucumber and being photographed with a crab on their heads. Twice a week the Starfish Enterprise also cruises as a three-hour National Park Service program in search of seals, porpoises, and coastal bird life. These boat tours are slightly more adult-focused, with a ranger knowledgeable in biology, geology, and history.
Downeast Friendship Sloop Charters
From Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor, 207-266-5210
Take a sailing trip and experience some of Maine’s coastal history in a unique way. My daughter, her friend, and I embarked upon a half-day excursion along with a young couple, although private charters are available. We sailed from Southwest Harbor past Bear Island Lighthouse and around the Cranberry Islands. Although there were no seals to be seen that day, we got the feeling of a traditional sailing sloop, hauling the sails and taking turns at the wheel. Our captain enthusiastically pulled out a book about the Friendship Sloops and showed us how their beautiful design provided practical benefits that made them common in Maine in the late 1800s as a boat for lobstering and fishing. We recommend seeing Mount Desert Island from this perspective. Next time we’re going to head out at sunset and bring along a thermos of gin and tonics.
Island Explorer Bus Service
Visitors, locals, and seasonal staff all applaud the Island Explorer bus system as “good for the environment and the pocketbook.” Utilizing propane-powered buses, it has carried over 2 million passengers, reduced smog-causing pollutants by more than 11 tons, and prevented the release of over 7,300 tons of greenhouse gases. Operating on eight convenient routes throughout Acadia National Park and the local villages, the service runs from mid-June to mid-October. It’s pet-friendly and fun for kids, with drivers who are “the best.” Cyclists can use the special Bicycle Express that operates between the Bar Harbor Village Green and the carriage road system at Eagle Lake. Hikers value the bus service because it makes it possible to do long hikes that aren’t loops. Everyone is grateful to Friends of Acadia and L.L. Bean for their financial support – a “kindly and generous act.” You can review maps and timetables at www.exploreacadia.com.
Maine State Sea Kayak
254 Main Street, Southwest Harbor 1-877-481-9500
Maine State Sea Kayak is the small, professional sea kayaking company we chose to explore “the quiet side” of Mount Desert Island rather than the more popular Frenchman Bay off Bar Harbor. Our sunset tour with ten other kayakers extended for six miles through Bartlett Narrows up into Western Bay to Clark Cove, a route determined by our guide Jane at the last minute based on wind, visibility, and tides. We saw harbor seals, a porpoise, a bald eagle, and osprey, while Jane explained why the waters of Maine spawn so much more sea life than other areas. The tandem kayak, which had a rudder controlled by my foot pedals in the stern, was more sophisticated than others we had used, plus we sported aprons to keep us dry. We not only felt safe. We were enchanted. Groups depart three times daily on the four-hour trip from the shop close to downtown Southwest Harbor, where you get all of your gear, including life preservers, water shoes, and those attractive triangular aprons. Maine State recommends you contact them one to two weeks before your vacation in Acadia.
National Park Canoe & Kayak
Pondís End (Long Pond), Somesville, 207-244-5854
If the sea kayaking trips are too challenging for your children, you may want to paddle instead on Long Pond on the “quiet side” of Mount Desert. The largest fresh-water body of water in Acadia, it provides you with some great options. You can put in at the southern end of Long Pond and paddle between the steep, granite cliffs of Beech and Mansell Mountains. Or you can choose the more populace northern end and explore around the Northern Neck peninsula, a particularly good choice if it’s a windy day. A convenient place to rent kayaks for Long Pond paddling is the private enterprise National Park Canoe and Kayak. You can rent single and double kayaks, as well as canoes, for three or six hours, all day, or all week. It’s located directly across from the northern end of the pond, which can be reached by following Route 102 toward Pretty Marsh.
370 Main Street, Southwest Harbor, 207-244-5856
If you’re staying on Mount Desert Island’s “quiet side,” you can rent and repair bicycles at Southwest Cycle. They’ll carefully fit you and provide everything you need from helmets to maps to advice. Then you can begin to explore the scenic carriage roads built by John Rockefeller, Jr. in the 1920s and 1930s, 45 miles of which are open to cyclists. Never too steep as to overtax the horse drawing Mr. Rockefeller’s carriage, there are bike routes comfortable for all skill levels, including kids. For those interested in building and architecture, these gravel carriage roads feature sixteen unique historic bridges and broken-granite markers along their sides. They take you through Acadia’s deep spruce forests, past lakes and ponds, and around mountains that will surprise and delight. Our favorite ride, in fact, is Around the Mountain. Try to time it so that the sun is contemplating its setting as you come around the bend westward. And be careful to keep paying attention to the road when you sight the hawks overhead.